In its continued, seemingly amplified crusade against HIV, the WHO spoke out from convention by advising nations all over the world to reform their laws that inadvertently enable the spread of HIV/AIDS. Most notably, the WHO advised for the decriminalization of drug use, especially intravenous drugs, and protections for sex workers.

The report, titled “Consolidated Guidelines on HIV Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Key Populations,” was released in July 2014 and contained the following declarations:

• “Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize injection and other use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration.”

• “Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize the use of clean needles and syringes (and that permit needle and syringe programmes) and that legalize opioid substitution therapy for people who are opioid-dependent.”

• “Countries should work toward decriminalization of sex work and elimination of the unjust application of non-criminal laws and regulations against sex workers.”

• “Countries should work towards legal recognition for transgender people.”

• “Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize same-sex behaviors.”

Each of the groups addressed in these statements, including sex workers, drug users, homosexuals and transgendered people, falls into the category of “key populations” at risk for HIV/AIDS. These populations also typically face laws and cultures that ostracize their lifestyles, leading to cycles of abuse and incarceration.

These factors create a formula that consistently punishes populations most in need of sound medical counseling, preventative education and medical treatment. As stated in the report, the key populations in question are “disproportionately affected by HIV in all countries and settings.”

Another notable aspect of the WHO’s report lies less in the substance of the text itself, but more so in the fact that it directly opposes the United Nation’s stance on the same issues. According to The Economist, the U.N. still holds to the 1988 position that every nation should dictate the criminalization of intentional possession and use of illegal narcotics under domestic law as it sees fit.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime shares the dissenting attitude toward the WHO’s report, as well, the idea that rehabilitation and societal reintegration tactics should be considered as alternatives to criminal sanctions.

Carefully worded, the report does not call for the legalization of activities such as drug use, but urges legal reform that focuses on rehabilitation versus criminalization.

In a statement to the Huffington Post, the senior adviser on strategy, policy and equity in the WHO’s Department of HIV Dr. Andrew Ball stated, “The guidelines recommend decriminalization of a range of behaviors of key populations…on public health grounds, so as to improve access to and utilization of health services, to reduce the likelihood of the adoption of riskier behaviors and to reduce incarceration rates.”

The HIV/AIDS world crisis is one of those issues that transcend border lines and cultures. The WHO has noted an increase in the number of cases in large cities in the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa. However, the poorest countries with the harshest incarceration laws, prominent cultural stigmas or least resources available are positioned to strongly heed the WHO’s reform considerations as they apply to each nation individually.

Edward Heinrich

Sources: io9, Washington Blade, The Economist, Huffington Post, PRI
Photo: io9

global aids crisis
Documentaries are among the most preeminent forms of learning. Melding visuals with the amusement of storytelling, documentaries weave truths together to inform and entertain. Though there are a bevy of subjects covered by documentaries, the medium is also being used to educate the world about the global AIDS crisis.

While the following three films are only a brief selection, they reflect the myriad of countries afflicted with AIDS. Each documentary reflects a different country and the different problems each faces.

1. Blood Brother

The documentary starts with footage of a young Indian girl dying. Her body is limp and her eyes are void of life as her father tries to take her to the hospital. While this would seem to be the start of a morose film, “Blood Brother” is anything but. The film follows Rocky, a native Ohioan, to Chennai, India. Having already been to India on a volunteering trip, he brought his filmmaking friend, Steven, to see the children with whom he fell in love.­

The children live in an AIDS orphanage in a small rural village. Many have contracted the disease from their parents. For sickly children, though, they lead vivacious lives. There are many sad, trying stories, including a family whose father committed suicide after his wife got the AIDS diagnosis.

Rocky routinely cares for the children’s wound and sores. He has unconditional love for these orphans, many of whom are ostracized by the village after AIDS stigmatizes them.

Though the film largely focuses on Rocky’s rapport with the children and the struggles of living with this disease, there’s an undeniable celebration of life.

2. The Blood of Yingzhou District

Set in the Heshing Province in China, this documentary by a Hong Kong filmmaker follows several poor families who were affected by the epidemic.

Some children have AIDS passed on from their parents, others are orphans from the disease, yet both are equally stigmatized. Children like Nan Nan and Gao Jun are alienated from their extended families for fear of the impact AIDS might have.

Many of these rural villages are full of myths about AIDS. The populations are generally uneducated on the subject and the manner of transmission.

The Fu’ai Charity helps children like Gao Jun be placed in foster homes and creates a sense of family for these otherwise ostracized children. Introducing them to other HIV positive people helps to form a community and Gao Jun shows progression with the attention and contact.

3. Tapestries of Hope (Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse)

While by far the most graphic on this list, “Tapestries of Hope” chronicles a rape survivor’s journey to visit the women and girls of Girl Child Network. Located in Zimbabwe, a population decimated by AIDS, many of these girls were raped as children and contracted the disease.

Zimbabwe is hotspot for HIV/AIDS for two main reasons. Firstly, unauthorized traditional healers have perpetuated the myth that having sex with a virgin will cure the disease. Secondly, sanctions on the nation have prohibited access to treatment drugs.

Not only is there an HIV pandemic, but also a rash of violence against women that has not been properly addressed.
While rehabilitating and healing the girls, Girl Child Network is fighting against the decades-old myth to protect girls and enact justice for them.

These three films just show individual facets of the global AIDS epidemic. Poorer, rural areas are particularly afflicted because of the inaccessibility of many medications and the urban myths that prevail. Combating the ostracism and stigma associated with AIDS is just as important as combating the disease. The documentaries shed light on the people living with the disease and after watching these films echo a common plea to raise awareness.

Note: All of these films are available for viewing on Netflix.

-Kristin Ronzi

Sources: Tapestries of Hope, Blood Brother, Blood of Yingzhou District
Photo: WN

Our knowledge of HIV/AIDS is continuously expanding 30 years into the AIDS epidemic. Researchers are discovering that–given the right treatment and precautions–people living with HIV can greatly reduce the risk of transmission to partners and can even safely conceive and give birth. Yet many health care providers in Central America are misguidedly pressuring HIV-positive women into sterilization.

Tamil Kendall, a Harvard School of Public Health research fellow with 10 years of experience in gender and HIV in Latin America, reports that “health care providers [in Central America] are expressing the view that living with HIV means that you don’t have reproductive rights, that you can’t choose the number and spacing of your children, that you can’t choose the contraceptive method that you would like to use.”

Kendall is the driving force behind a recently-published study on health care practices in El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua, one which reveals antiquated attitudes toward HIV and troubling reproductive rights violations throughout the region.

The results show that, out of the 285 women studied across the four Central American countries, 23 percent have been pressured by health care professionals to go through a sterilization procedure. Rates in individual countries range from 20 percent in Nicaragua to 28 percent in Mexico. Additionally, only half of the women surveyed reported being told that an intervention in the form of antiretroviral drugs exists, which can reduce mother-to-child transmission of the virus by 98 to 99 percent.

Women with HIV are coerced by doctors and nurses unethically. Kendall reports that one Mexican woman was sterilized while under anesthetics during a Caesarian section. Another young mother from El Salvador claimed that doctors refused to perform a Caesarian until she consented to sterilization. Many women are told that another pregnancy will result in their own or their child’s death.

Kendall’s study reveals that socioeconomic status and ethnicity do not play a part in this kind of discrimination and that it is driven solely by an HIV-positive diagnosis.

Yet amid this troubling news, there is reason for optimism. As Kendall observes, “There is some promising research… indicating that health care providers are becoming increasingly aware of the possibility of preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission as well as sexual transmission with antiretroviral therapy—and that this knowledge is starting to transform attitudes.”

Moving forward, she recommends that health care providers be held accountable for their actions in courts, and that policy makers become aware of new research on HIV/AIDS and begin investing more in reproductive health and women’s rights.

– Kayla Strickland

Sources: Thomson Reuters Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health
Photo: Fabulous-City

hiv/aids cure
Despite the death of leading AIDS researchers on flight MH17, there is reason for hope in the field of AIDS research. Progress has been made in the search for the HIV/AIDS cure. Researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark performed an experiment in which they gave six HIV-infected people an old cancer drug called romidepsin.

Romidepsin is a last-resort treatment for certain types of skin cancers and lymphomas. It works by blocking enzymes created by cancer cells, thus preventing them from multiplying and encouraging healthy cell growth. Side effects of romidepsin include irregular hearing rhythm, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and anemia.

The drug could possibly be used in AIDS treatment because the HIV virus settles deep within hidden “reservoirs” in cells where it lies dormant, making it impossible for current HIV medications to reach it. When romidepsin was administered to people with HIV/AIDS, the drug was successful in bringing the dormant virus out of hiding. The hope is that when the sleeping virus is unearthed, the body’s immune system will be able to fight against and eliminate it. Currently, there are medications available to keep AIDS in check, but if a patient stops taking his or her medication, the virus emerges from these reservoirs and wreaks havoc on the body unless treatment is started again.

In Oslo, the biotechnical company Bionor Pharma has been studying romidepsin along with another drug known as vacc-4x, which is administered after romidepsin has been used. The vacc-4x is supposed to aid the immune system in killing the virus. This process has been named the “kick-and-kill” method.

Bionor Pharma has announced that they have completed the pilot study for the kick-and-kill method and are ready to move on to the second part of the study. The second stage will involve treating HIV-infected patients with romidepsin and vacc-4x for three weeks. After three weeks, all HIV treatment will cease and the patients will be monitored to see if the virus rebounds.

While AIDS can be a manageable disease for people with access to quality health care, it affects 35 million people worldwide and only 13.9 million are receiving treatment. Most people affected by AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in five people have HIV/AIDS. If people infected with the HIV virus leave it untreated, it will develop into AIDS, and because treatment is daily and expensive, most people in Sub-Saharan Africa cannot afford it. Many advancements have been made to treat HIV/AIDS since the 1990s, but just as important as finding a cure is making sure all those infected have access to it.

Taylor Lovett

Sources: American Cancer Society, Avert, Boston Globe
Photo: iFarmaci

aids conference
July 18 and 19 marked the beginning of the 20th annual International AIDS Conference. It was kicked off with a youth pre-conference event, in which young people gathered to discuss how their voices could be heard in the fight against AIDS. Upon leaving, they set forth a new slogan for the approach to AIDS in Africa: “Treat, reform, educate, love.”

The pre-conference event produced a Youth Action Plan, calling for all regional, national and international discussions on AIDS to incorporate the voices of the youth. Their focus is to be included in all AIDS advocacy, policy and treatment.

Young people have been particularly active in the AIDS fight over the last year, coming together to become involved in important decisions. Their main goal has been to see investment in high-impact programs around the world that provide help for young people on the ground.

With 2015 right around the corner, a main goal of young people is for the global post-2015 agenda to have a focus on AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. They emphasized that by putting the health, well-being and human rights of young people at the forefront of the agenda, poverty and sickness can be reduced drastically around the world. Starting with youths is the best way to see real change.

Another idea that both youths and adults are pushing is the necessity of ending the stigma that is associated with AIDS in order to see an end to the disease. The adults at the AIDS conference shared many of the same beliefs that the youth called out in their event. In the end, the pre-conference emphasized to the young people the importance of joining the already established groups in order to work together to make progress in fighting AIDS.

Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, encouraged the youths assembled to “get organized and mobilize as a movement with clear political objectives. Build alliances with other youth sectors toward common goals, and together we will end the AIDS epidemic.”

– Hannah Cleveland

Sources: All Africa, Devex
Photo: Housing Works

AIDS conference
The 20th International Aids Conference took place July 20 -25 and was held in Melbourne, Australia.  The aim of the conference was to create a forum where people could address the problematic impact of AIDS on a global scale.

Speakers at the conference included founder and former U.S. president Bill Clinton, U.S. Global Aids Coordinator Ambassador Deborah Brix, USNG’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia Michel Kazatchkine, among others.

The Melbourne declaration for the International Aids Conference states that in regards to HIV/AIDS, it is vital that everyone, “…call for the immediate and unified opposition to discriminatory and stigmatizing practices and urge all parties to take a more equitable and equitable approach through the following actions.”

The declaration then lists actions such as insisting that “governments must repeal repressive laws and end policies that reinforce discriminatory and stigmatizing practices and increase vulnerability to HIV, while also passing laws that actively promote equality,” that “all healthcare providers must demonstrate the implementation of non-discriminatory policies as a prerequisite for future HIV program funding” and that “restrictions on funding, such as the anti-prostitution pledge and ban on purchasing needles and syringes, must be removed as they actively impede the struggle to combat HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and hepatitis C among sex workers and people who inject drugs.”

The 2014 AIDS conference had 12,000 attendees from over 200 countries across the globe and was sponsored by the International AIDS Society (IAS).  In addition to raising awareness, the conference also acted as a forum where researchers could present new findings for how to address and hopefully end this epidemic.  The conference included information about other projects like the Global Village and hosted satellite meetings in order to serve as a networking platform to combat HIV/AIDS.

– Jordyn Horowitz


Sources: AIDS 2014, IA Society, USA Today
Photo: USA Today